NEVADA, Iowa (AP) — In this Iowa town, at precisely 7 p.m., Ward 2 Democratic precinct chairwoman Kathy Johnson kicked things off on an upbeat note.
“The cool thing about our caucus, you get a chance to publicly say which candidate you support and you get a chance to influence your neighbors,” Johnson said to 105 people seated on folding metal chairs at Gates Memorial Hall, a few blocks from downtown Nevada, a community of 7,000 roughly 40 miles north of Des Moines.
“You will feel like you have been part of democracy.”
And here is what democracy looks like in the town of Nevada and across Iowa: While Republicans cast private ballots, Democrats break into groups that publicly declare their support for a candidate. If the number of people in any group is less than 15 percent of the total, they can either choose not to participate or can join another candidate group.
As the caucus began, the group got up from their chairs and moved to opposite sides of the room, toward tables decorated with signs and flyers for each candidate.
Supporters of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders made up the bulk of the room. The effort for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley faded quickly, when only three people stood beneath his lone sign. They quickly joined the Sanders ranks.
“We couldn’t get another 13 people to join us,” said Dario Zaffarano, 68, of Nevada. “I’m not surprised. I’m not disappointed.”
Luke Spencer, 34, who served as a precinct captain for Sanders, said he’s long been sold on the Vermont senator.
“I believe in what he’s talking about,” said Luke Spencer, 34, who served as a precinct captain for Sanders. “I want to get big money out of politics.”
The move of the O’Malley supporters to Sanders, as well as some who originally were uncommitted, drew cheers and gave Sanders a slight advantage. Under the caucus’ arcane rules, however, the delegate split was a tie between Sanders and Clinton, mirroring the outcome across the state, where the two candidates were locked in a tight race late into the night.
Bobby Jo Pohlman, 38, who moved from uncommitted to Sanders, said it was for his education policies. “I think raising the minimum wage is huge,” she added.
The Democrats of Ward 2 caucused in a room sandwiched between two Republican ward caucuses.
At Republican Ward 4 next door, many of the voters who crowded onto the folding chairs began the process still undecided which candidate they would support.
Charlie Good, the 57-year-old owner of a gasoline station and convenience store in Nevada, said he was choosing between businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Good, who’s in the business of ethanol and other biofuels, said he liked Cruz but was troubled by his call to end the renewable fuel standard, which requires that gasoline be blended with ethanol. But the most important thing, he said, is to elect a president who will carry out the will of the people.
“I’m sick of politicians who turn their back on us once they get our vote,” Good said. “I couldn’t run my business like the way they run Washington, D.C.”
Dennis Van Allen, a 69-year-old retiree, arrived at the caucus saying he’d narrowed his choices to three candidates: Trump, Cruz and Rubio.
“Cruz, because he’s a Reagan conservative,” Van Allen said.
Trump? “I don’t think he’s real politically correct, and I like that,” he said.
Bob Hattery, a 66-year-old retired insurance salesman, said he was voting for Donald Trump because he wanted someone to disrupt Washington.
“He’s not a real conservative but he doesn’t owe anything to anyone,” Hattery said. “I’m so fed up with Washington, I can hardly see straight.”
In the end, the Republicans of Nevada’s Ward 4 caucus made Trump their top choice, followed by Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, an outcome that mirrored statewide polling ahead of the caucus. But when the caucuses ended across the state, it was Cruz who ended up atop the Republican field.
For Ward 4 chairman John Anderson, the Nevada outcome was pretty much what he expected. “We’re pretty middle-of-the-road here,” he said.